Blackhawks

Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

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Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

General Manager Stan Bowman answered questions for 25 minutes Wednesday at the United Center. The impression he left was more "stay the course", rather than "shake it up."

Blackhawks fans, columnists, and Twitter accounts are already in debate on whether that's the right course of action after a second straight first-round playoff exit -- this time without the short summer or before opening up salary cap space that allowed him to shape this past season's roster as he saw fit.

The remainder of the week will include coaching and management skill sessions about the areas that need shoring up, either from the outside or from within. But as I wrote in my Blackhawks Talk post back on March 28th, a lot of what you've seen is probably what you'll get. Sure, this week's meetings may end up determining from within that there's more that needs fixing than Bowman shared on Wednesday, but unless there's a taker out there for a few of the Hawks' more inconsistent players who have yet to reach the organization's projections, there's a lot of money already committed within the present roster. If not, they need to gamble with packaging some promising youth for veteran pedigree and production.

It sounded as if it's been already been decided that Patrick Kane's a center next season, that he can reach his full potential in that role, rather than staying on the wing with Jonathan Toews or an imported second-line pivot. If that's the case, Kane's summer should be spent preparing himself for eight months of more defensive responsibility, and trying to make the opposition adjust to his speed and quickness over any adjustments he'd need to make against bigger opponents in a 200-foot game. But as my pre- and post-game colleague Steve Konroyd has pointed out several times, Kane loves a challenge, and has spent 23 years proving people wrong. If that's his assignment, and his immediate future, he'll try to do that yet again.

I asked Duncan Keith about the toll of all the hard minutes he and Brent Seabrook play as their careers go on, and whether they would benefit from more consistently reliable blueliners behind them to pick up at least some of the slack. I'm with him when he calls Nick Leddy reliable -- as long as Leddy uses the summer to bulk up. But he also called Hjalmarsson and Montador reliable. I wasn't about to get into a public argument with him about his teammates to his face, but there's a contractual commitment to those two to fill out the defensive corps, and they'll need to have better seasons next year. Whether the size they need for a sixth defenseman is served by Dylan Olsen or an import, the second and third pairings need more positive consistency to make Keith and Seabrook even better, not to mention Corey Crawford.

That brings us to an interesting observation by Bowman that brought some perspective about the secret to success of this year's Western Conference final four. Everyone can't help but see the keys for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Phoenix: Great goaltending and solid defense surrounding the net. Those four teams finished in the top ten in regular season goals-against average. After Corey Schneider in Vancouver (hellooo, Bobby Lu?), Elliott, Quick, Rinne and Smith own the next four GAA's and save percentages among the regular starters through round one. So, obviously, the Hawks need to go out and acquire an elite goaltender, right?

Said Bowman:

"It really is something that changes year-to-year, or every couple years. Styles change. Two years ago, we won the Cup, and two unheralded goaltenders went to the Finals in Niemi and Leighton. Everyone was saying, 'I guess goaltending's not that important. You don't need to have a supposed great goaltender to win the Cup.'

"Here we are, two years later, and it's shifting back the other way. Whatever's happening that season, people put emphasis on. This year, goaltending had really ruled the league. Is that the way it's going to be, going forward? It's tough to predict. You can't be too re-active to what other teams do. You have to look at your strengths and play to what they are. We have a lot of talented offensive players, and you don't want to take away from the strengths of this team. I think getting them to play responsible hockey, and not giving up too many opportunities is something we want to focus on."

Based on the tone of that, as well as other comments Wednesday, it's how the Blackhawks intend to move forward. If they do, indeed, "stay the course," we'll know a year from now whether that call turns out to be the right one. It sounds like that's what Bowman's banking on.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose ground in wildcard race with regulation loss to Avalanche

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AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks lose ground in wildcard race with regulation loss to Avalanche

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Saturday:

1. Losing ground

It's been well-documented much this weekend means for the Blackhawks. It could basically make or break their playoff chances with exactly two weeks left. They even got a break when they found out during warmups that Colorado's second-leading point getter Mikko Rantanen would miss the game due to an undisclosed injury, joining captain Gabriel Landeskog on the sidelines.

But the Avalanche seemed to elevate their intensity because of it. Just like their last meeting against Colorado, the Blackhawks failed to hold a lead at any point in the game and were forced to play catch-up in the third period when they fell behind two goals.

With the regulation loss, the Blackhawks fell six points out of the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference with only a game in hand. It didn't help that Arizona picked up a point, either. Time is running out.

2. Lack of power play success reason for offensive drought

The power play was one of the main reasons why the Blackhawks turned their season around at the end of December. It was converting at a 40 percent clip for months. Obviously, that was going to be unsustainable over the course of a full season.

But it has completely dried up over the last several weeks, and it's the primary reason why the offense hasn't been firing on all cylinders as of late.

The Blackhawks had three power-play opportunities against Colorado. They recorded 12 shot attempts, six shots on goal and generated four scoring chances but couldn't find the back of the net. They're now 1-for-25 on the power play in their last 11 games. The 5-on-5 success is there, but the 5-on-4 isn't.

The Blackhawks have scored only seven goals in their past four games, which comes out to 1.75 per game. That's not going to cut it.

3. Not taking advantage of defensive improvement

It really is a shame that the Blackhawks are hitting a scoring drought at the worst possible time. Because there's noticeably been a defensive improvement over the last week. It's their best stretch in a while.

Over the last three games, the Blackhawks have allowed 20 total high-danger chances at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com, for an average of 6.7 per game. They had given up double-digit high-danger chances in 13 of their previous 17 games, including consecutive games where they allowed 20 to Montreal and 15 to Toronto.

Their season average in that department before Monday was 11.5. So they've shaved off nearly five full high quality scoring chances per game in this mini stretch. That's a huge improvement. But they haven't had much to show for it, recording one out of a possible six points.

4. Turning the page fast

Fortunately for the Blackhawks, they won't have too much time to sulk on this regulation loss. The two Central Division foes will go right back at it on Sunday night at the United Center. And that's truly a must-win game for the Blackhawks. It's why they should start Corey Crawford on back-to-back days for the first time since November 2017.

Another regulation loss would put the Blackhawks eight points back with seven games left, and it would only be a matter of time before they're mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

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'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

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USA TODAY

'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

The last time the Blackhawks and Avalanche met, it was viewed as the most important regular season game to date for the Blackhawks because it was a chance to finally pull inside the playoff picture and push the Avalanche out of it. That was Feb. 22.

Fast forward one month and the Blackhawks are approaching a home-and-home weekend series with the Avalanche, who are currently sitting in the second wildcard spot with 78 points. The Blackhawks are at 74 with a game in hand. They have an opportunity to make things real interesting with exactly two weeks left in the season.

“It can go one of two ways,” Jonathan Toews said. “So obviously we want to play our best hockey and make sure we’re in control of who gets the points in these next two.”

The Blackhawks were encouraged with how they played in that Feb. 22 against Colorado. They led in shot attempts (73-47), shots on goal (44-31), scoring chances (40-23) and high-danger chances (20-13), according to naturalstattrick.com, except the category that mattered most and that's the scoreboard (5-3 loss).

"It's one of our better efforts of the year," coach Jeremy Colliton said after the game. "Sometimes the results don't go your way, but the challenge is to reproduce [at] that level and I think if we do, we'll get our fair share of points."

The Blackhawks are hoping a similar performance will lead to the desire result this time around. These are a pair of four-point swings that mean so much at this time of year. Colliton even acknowledged on Friday that Corey Crawford could start in both games, which would be his first back-to-back action since Nov. 4 and 5 in 2017.

The Avalanche have won three in a row, and have outscored their opponents 9-2 in that span. They're coming in hot. The Blackhawks have scored only five goals in their past three games, so they're looking to end that offensive dry spell.

The good news? The Blackhawks are 8-3-0 in their last 11 road games and have a plus-6 goal differential over that stretch. They clearly have been feeling more comfortable on the road as of late. And maybe it'll help set the tone in an all-important series.

"We’re OK with a track meet, but on our terms," Colliton said. "We want to be the one with the puck and catching them before they’re ready to defend. But they’ve got some good players and we’ve gotta be aware of them when they’re on the ice and try to keep the puck out of their hands. Hopefully — we’re coming off a loss and we know the stakes here — we’ll be really good tomorrow.”

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